Numbers do not mean everything in Formula One, at least in the eyes of the fan.
That is why Ayrton Senna, still a triple world champion, is often viewed by many as being the greatest of all time, despite the likes of Alain Prost, Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher all having won more titles than the Brazilian.
That's not to say Senna is not among the greatest when it comes to statistics. He started 161 races, 65 from pole, and won 41 races. He finished on the podium 80 times and was world champion in 1988, 1990 and 1991. The latter was earned 22 years ago today, in the Japanese Grand Prix.
There was certainly something different about him. I am not pretending I knew him or watched him race live at the time (I was not even two years old when he died in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix), but I know from pouring over old footage, watching interviews with him and those who knew him and reading the thoughts and recollections of his peers that Senna was held in a different regard.
A Talent Lost Too Soon
Is he viewed differently because of his death? It is, after all, a question that can be applied to Gilles Villeneuve or to Francois Cevert, both drivers who never reached the peak their potential suggested they might because they were tragically killed in crashes.
We will never know what Senna could have gone on to achieve were it not for his untimely death at Imola, and some would argue that it need not matter. His status as a three-time champion puts him in a rare club indeed.
Senna’s place in history will remain forever more, of that there is no doubt. Equally, there is no questioning his status as an F1 legend—but does his tragic story lend itself to people remembering him in a different light?
Do not view this as a suggestion that Senna was over-egged as a driver. He was a phenomenal talent; there are not enough on-board videos in the world to make most fans get tired of watching the Brazilian at work. He was that entertaining, that brilliant.
But had he survived and continued racing in 1995, 1996—maybe even 1997—and the trophy cabinet stayed the same, rather than swelled, would he still be the swashbuckling hero we remember him as? Senna had endured a difficult start to 1994 with Williams—arguably the best team that season—and had no points entering the race in San Marino.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to think Senna would not have scored points for the rest of the year, and it would have been a brave man to bet against him getting on top of the car and winning in it as well. But would he have been world champion? Up against the tricks of Benneton, would he have beaten Michael Schumacher?
All redundant questions, you might think, but would history view him different if his career ended with a few podiums and maybe a couple of top-five finishes in the championship standings? Probably. There would still be no disputing his quality as a driver, but maybe people would look back and say, “Senna, yeah, he was awesome—but he left it a bit late to retire. He was rubbish in 1996!”
Equally, he could have been phenomenal. He could have risen to the challenge of Benetton, stayed with Williams through its superb mid-'90s period and emerged as a four-, five-, or maybe even six-time world champion.
A Legendary Legacy
To get lost in the “ifs, buts and maybes” would be to lose sight of the bigger picture this article intends to bring to light, which is to look at why we revere Senna the way we do when looking back at the pantheon of F1 greats.
Ultimately, his on-track legacy is almost irrelevant compared to the impact he had on his home country. The people of Brazil revered Senna. There is a beautiful line in the documentary (which you should make every effort to watch if you have not already) that bears his name about him bringing hope where there previously was none.
Beyond his reputation, in Senna’s memory there was established the Instituto Ayrton Senna, run by his sister Viviane. The charity did some remarkable things in the two decades following Senna’s death, funded by the triple world champion’s legacy. It has worked to help millions of Brazilian children in a country infamously struggling with crime and poverty in its slums.
By donating Senna’s image rights and proceeds from his comic book character Senninha, the charity used the estimated $20 million windfall to help millions of Brazilian children. In 2007 alone, it is estimated it worked with 1,350,532 children across more than 1,000 Brazilian cities. No number of titles or race wins can buy that sort of nationwide impact.
The positive impact he had on his home country was in stark contrast to the impact he had on his rivals when alive. The needle between the Brazilian and Alain Prost was built on competitive foundations but soured during their time as teammates at McLaren.
The 1989 and 1990 world titles were decided by clashes between the two; the fault for both could be attributed to Senna. I'm not saying he was to blame, but there are arguments to be made either way.
He was controversial, but that was because he was ruthless. That characteristic was what defined him as such a remarkable racing driver, part of the package we have grown to revere. The beauty and brilliance of Senna—of his character, his ability and his character—is that his legacy is left to be viewed independently depending on what fans deem of greatest value.
More Than A Driver
Some drivers won more races than Senna. Some drivers won more titles than Senna. No driver did what Senna did for his country; very few did what he did for the sport. A lot of that came before his death, not just afterwards.
He was a triple world champion. He was ruthless. He was fast. He got caught up in controversy. He was one of the greatest drivers to have graced the sport.
Does his death mean we view him as a better driver than he was? It does not matter. Did he inspire a remarkable legacy that transcended sport and gave true hope to the hopeless, making a real difference to more than just the fans of a billion-dollar industry? Yes. Yes he did.
If you pushed me for an answer to the first of those questions, I would say no. History always encourages positive memories of those we remember; so aren’t all world champions given a bit of gloss over time? Do the majority remember Schumacher’s (many) follies now, or do they remember his seven world titles, 91 wins and revitalisation of an ailing Ferrari team?
So maybe we focus only on the positives when we look back at Ayrton Senna’s F1 career—that’s not a crime. F1 tends to do that with all its greatest characters. The only thing Senna’s death sped up was the time in which we grew to overlook his flaws and appreciate the legacy he left.